China Currency Hearings a Distraction

This week’s congressional hearings on China’s currency generated a lot of heat but almost no light. Winning the prize among tough competition for the most irresponsible sound bite was Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. At a Senate hearing Thursday that featured Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Schumer tossed out this grenade:

At a time when the U.S. economy is trying to pick itself up off the ground, China’s currency manipulation is like a boot to the throat of our recovery. This administration refuses to try and take that boot off our neck.

The implication of the senator’s remark is that Americans would be enjoying a robust economic recovery right now if only China were to allow its currency to appreciate by 20 to 40 percent. But is that a reasonable charge?

Granted, China’s currency, the yuan, probably is priced in dollars below what it would be were its value freely determined in global currency markets. And an undervalued currency will make Chinese imports to the United States more affordable, and U.S. exports to China somewhat more expensive. But “a boot to the throat of our recovery”? Let’s get real.

The Chinese market has been one of the bright spots for American exporters. China’s economic growth has been so robust that its growing demand for U.S. goods has swamped any negative effect of its currency. In the first seven months of 2010, according to the most recent monthly report from the U.S. Commerce Department, exports of U.S. goods to China are up 36 percent compared to the same period last year. That is a 50 percent faster growth rate than U.S. exports to the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, U.S. imports from China so far this year have been growing more slowly than exports to China, and more slowly than imports from the rest of the world. As a result, while our trade deficit with China in 2010 has grown by $22 billion, our trade deficit with the rest of the world has grown by $64 billion. But it is much easier these days to demonize China than other trading partners with whom Americans run a trade deficit, such as Canada, Japan, and the European Union.

One of the bright spots of the U.S. economy has been the manufacturing sector, which is supposedly taking the brunt of China’s “currency manipulation.” According to the latest report from the Federal Reserve, U.S. manufacturing output is up about 8 percent from a year ago.

The chief obstacle to America’s recovery is not China’s currency regime, but a housing market that remains depressed, soaring government spending and debt, looming tax increases, and grandstanding politicians who refuse to remove those very large boots from the neck of the American economy.